x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mr Lula and his nation arrive

Mr Lula's diplomatic ambitions are in keeping with the rise of Brazil's standing, marked by Rio de Janeiro's selection as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The visit by Brazil's president to the Middle East at first appears like another instance of a left-leaning Latin American president engaged in mischief. The itinerary of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva features stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where disputes involving his continent's big neighbour to the north, the United States, have only become more complicated. There is also a lingering suspicion that his sojourn is merely an attempt to inoculate himself politically ahead of a controversial visit to Iran in May, which has caused a few raised eyebrows in the Gulf. But by throwing Brazil's weight behind the Middle East peace process, this logic goes, the Brazilian leader is seeking to strengthen his credibility as a peacemaker and his current position that further sanctions against Tehran for failing to come clean on its nuclear programme are premature. Mr Lula also represents the sentiments of more than a few people when he says the Middle East peace process requires "someone with neutrality" to speak to all sides - an obvious commentary on Washington's tattered role of honest broker.

While Mr Lula doubtless has politics on his mind, it would be a misreading of his visits to the region to conclude that they are ill-considered. Brazil deserves a prominent place on the international stage. It is the world's fifth-largest country with the world's fifth-largest population - at least seven million of whom are of Lebanese or Syrian descent. Within a decade, Brazil is likely to have the world's fifth-largest economy. Mr Lula's diplomatic ambitions are in keeping with the rise of Brazil's standing, marked by Rio de Janeiro's selection as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The real test for Mr Lula will come during his visit to Tehran this spring when the idea of engagement with Iran will perhaps have its last major test before tougher sanctions are imposed. Brazil wants no repeat of the 2003 UN Security Council vote for military intervention in Iraq. In its view, the vote, based on inconclusive evidence about weapons of mass destruction, undermined the principle of collective security and demonstrated how the non-proliferation regime could be manipulated by stronger states against weaker ones.

Equally tricky for Mr Lula will be dealing with the Iranian government's treatment of its political opposition. It would be ironic, to say the least, if a man who was imprisoned by a military dictatorship in the 1970s for his trade-union activities allowed the Iranian government to use his presence in Tehran to dignify its harsh treatment of its opponents. Mr Lula can play a useful role if he succeeds in winning Tehran's compliance with UN resolutions and helping avert an unnecessary or unjustified war over Tehran's nuclear programme. We wish him luck.